Published in Manufacturing
Schweitzer Orchards in Sparta uses drones to photograph fields and figure out the accurate placement of drainage tiles. Schweitzer Orchards in Sparta uses drones to photograph fields and figure out the accurate placement of drainage tiles. Courtesy Photo

Drones save cost, improve efficiency for West Michigan companies

BY Sunday, April 29, 2018 02:00pm

Emerging drone technology is helping reduce costs and save time for a range of West Michigan businesses, from farmers to construction companies and beyond. 

At Sparta-based Schweitzer Orchards, drones help growers gather information and “diagnose” isolated issues with crops before they become a 215-acre problem. The company is one of a handful in West Michigan to use the inexpensive technology to improve its processes and its efficiency.

“Some of the technologies that are emerging can really help (growers) diagnose and see where there might be issues with disease in an orchard,” fifth-generation apple and pear grower Nick Schweitzer told MiBiz. “It’s mostly at the initial beginning stages, (but) a lot of farmers are starting to adopt it and get a drone to take pictures of their fields.”

The old methods of drawing out tile maps are outdated and can lead to pictures “sometimes to scale, (and) sometimes not,” he said, noting the traditional process can lead to improper estimates of the location of the tiles.

“Right now, before we take out a block (of orchard), I take a drone up and take photos of before and after when we have to retile certain fields,” Schweitzer said. “It’s pretty useful when we … take out an old orchard and use those pictures for later references.” 

For the agriculture industry, drones could prove to be a useful time-saver. Goldman Sachs estimates that given current altitude restrictions, a farmer could use a drone to inspect up to 1,000 acres per day, “turning around surveys faster and more accurately than planes or satellites.”

At Schweitzer Orchards, using drones also avoids the cost of hiring a land surveyor to map out acres of orchards. The technology is “pretty accurate” in doing a similar function, and can complete the tasks for “cheap.” 

“(Farmers) will spend a lot more time trying to figure out where that tile was laid 20 or 30 years ago,” he said, noting the drone photography can be paired with Google Earth to quickly provide the data. “You shouldn’t have to spend all of that time trying to figure out where it’s at.”

Although Schweitzer purchased his drone in December 2016, he is now just beginning to take advantage of its features. 

“In the future, I can go back and look at those (drone) photographs … and be able to reference and figure out that this is where the tile is and know exactly what I need to do,” he said.

Early adopters like Schweitzer are deploying drone technology ahead of a period of expected rapid growth for the so-called unmanned aerial vehicles. According to the 2018 Federal Aviation Administration Aerospace Forecast, commercial unmanned aerial systems are expected “to expand rapidly over time, especially as newer and more sophisticated uses are identified, designed and planned.”

The FAA estimates commercial drone deployment to grow to between 451,000 and 718,000 by 2022, up from around 110,000 last year. 

That growth is fueled by the ease of use and the capabilities of the technology. The days of “using film cameras” aboard airplanes to capture images are gone, said Carl Turek, owner of Grand Rapids-based Michigan Drone Pros USA. Now, digital drone photography and videography remove steps from the process — i.e., making prints — and save time and costs, he said. 

“We can drive up to the customer’s site and launch the drone safely in their parking lot to capture images of their building, or whatever it is that is needed to be done,” Turek added. “(It’s) more efficient than … charging the customer the extra costs of renting an airplane and hiring a pilot, driving to the airport back and forth. That’s very time consuming and adds costs to the consumer.”
Turek has flown drones professionally for three to four years now, offering still photography and videography for clients including Universal Forest Products Inc., McGraw Construction Inc. and JR Automation LLC.

The FAA report cites real estate and aerial photography (48 percent) as by far the largest estimated user of commercial drones, followed by industrial and utility inspectors (28 percent), agriculture (17 percent), insurance (4 percent) and state and local government emergency services (3 percent).


Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction Co. is another early adopter of using drone technology to take images of construction sites from vantage points the company “couldn’t (have) years ago,” said Senior Superintendent Pat Corderman, who is a licensed unmanned aerial systems pilot.

To date, the company has largely been using the drones to photograph the progress at its various construction projects, he said. It’s a process that is more accessible and safer than the original methods, particularly for buildings in excess of 100 feet in height, Corderman added.

“We like to be able to fly up to our larger structures and do roof examinations, make sure roofs are cleared up and properly set,” Corderman told MiBiz. “For example, our 250,000-square-foot (buildings) are tough to climb up on. … The drone has the capability to freeze-frame pictures or videos.”

Shane Napper, president of construction at Rockford, said drones provide a safer way to document quality in a “timely manner,” while also helping with site-specific purposes “from logistic plans and construction material staging areas, to securing visual access to otherwise inaccessible areas, like wetlands.”

“This technology is also valuable in the documentation of soil erosion or sedimentation for DEQ purposes — drones can map points and calculate topography over time,” Napper said in an email to MiBiz. “With all Rockford Construction projects, safety is first and foremost. We have a staff of licensed remote pilots who receive ongoing education and license renewals — this isn’t just something anyone could casually fly above an active construction site.” 

Although Rockford hasn’t been able to compute the return on investment from using drones, the technology has helped the company with cost-saving scenarios, Corderman said. For example, the date-stamped drone photographs helped clear up a discrepancy with a customer related to materials left on a roof. 

The company also has only scratched the surface of the technology’s usefulness, Corderman added, noting some drones can be equipped with thermal imaging to detect roof leaks and other issues. 

“We have the capability to use that tech, but we don’t have it yet,” he said. 

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